The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

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Discussion Topic

The symbolic significance of the falcon to different characters in The Maltese Falcon

Summary:

In The Maltese Falcon, the falcon symbolizes different things to various characters. To Sam Spade, it represents the quest for truth and justice. For others, like Gutman, Cairo, and Brigid, it embodies greed, ambition, and the corrupting power of wealth. Each character's pursuit of the falcon reveals their true nature and motivations.

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In The Maltese Falcon, is the falcon a symbol and does it have different meanings for different characters?

In Chapter 13 Gutman explains the history of the Maltese Falcon in great detail. Emperor Charles V gave the Knights of Rhodes Malta, Gozo, and Tripoli on condition that they pay him the annual tribute of one falcon "In the acknowledgment that Malta was still under Spain." The Knights decided to give the Emperor "a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers." The Maltese Falcon originated as a symbol of loyalty, and loyalty is a principal theme throughout Hammett's novel. Wilmer Cook is loyal to Gutman. Floyd Thursby was loyal to Brigid O'Shaughnessy. In Chapter 19, Gutman tells Spade that he (Thursby) "was quite determinedly loyal to Miss O'Shaughnessy"). Captain Jacobi was also loyal to Brigid. Effie Perrine is exceedingly loyal to Sam Spade. Joel Cairo is loyal to General Kemidov, although the Russian, who knows the falcon is a fake, has sent him on a wild goose chase. (Kemidov himself is probably living in exile because he was loyal to the Czar.) Even Rhea Gutman is loyal to her father. (Loyalty was an important matter to Dashiell Hammett. In The Glass Key, one man takes a terrible beating out of loyalty to a friend.) Sam Spade is loyal to his partner in a sense, although he is disloyal in carrying on an affair with Archer's wife. Spade is loyal in his determination to avenge his partner's murder. ("When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it.") Brigid expects Spade to be loyal to her, but he deliberately tricks her into confessing that she killed Archer. Brigid herself is loyal to no one. Spade is self-reliant. He trusts nobody but himself. He is loyal to no one but himself. He has a low opinion of human nature, based on his experience as a police detective--and perhaps on his own assessment of himself.

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In The Maltese Falcon, is the falcon a symbol and does it have different meanings for different characters?

That's an interesting perspective.  The falcon in the story is a figurine of course, but it does symbolize something to the characters.  For Spade's secretary and her professor it's a romantic or historic mystery, for Sam Spade it's the elusive answer to all his questions.  For the others, it's a symbolic quest, to actually posses this fabulous historic artifact.  Of course, they want it for it's economic value, the fact that they would be rich, not for any historic value.  And in a sense the falcon is simply luring them to their doom, some to death, some to prison, and Sam Spade back to his lonely life.

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In The Maltese Falcon, is the falcon a symbol and does it have different meanings for different characters?

In Native American symbolism, the falcon or hawk is extremely powerful.  Hawks remind us that we must see things for what they really are, not for what we want them to be.  Unfortunately, in today's world, society just doesn't have time.  The hawk's eyes are made up of two lenses--one for seeing what is around him, and one for zooming in on his prey, which explains why they can dive with such accuracy from great heights.  It is in this spirit that I suggest that the falcon, and the drive to obtain it, is a story about stripping away conventional wisdom to seek truth.

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What might the falcon symbolize to each character in The Maltese Falcon based on their actions?

As far as Spade himself is concerned, the falcon symbolizes the key to the mystery he is trying to solve. He has to understand the meaning of the falcon to some of the other characters in order to be able to understand who killed his partner Miles Archer and who killed  Floyd Thursby, and why. Spade remains skeptical about the authenticity of the falcon throughout the novel, and he is not surprised when it turns out to be a fake.

For Brigid O'Shaughnessy the falcon is both a valuable prize and a dangerous burden. As long as she has the statuette, or has access to it, her life is in danger. She wants to get rid of it.

For Joel Cairo the falcon is something he has been employed to retrieve for General Kemidov, from whom it was stolen by Brigid. At least that is what he claims. If he got possession of it he might double-cross Kemidov and possibly try to make a deal with Gutman.

For Gutman the black bird is a priceless treasure he has been pursuing for seventeen years. It has become a quest that gives meaning to his life, and it has a greater value to him than its intrinsic value or its value as an antique.

For Captain Jabobi it is just a package he has promised  to deliver to Brigid and may be rewarded with her affection.

It should be noted that in Chapter 11 it appears that Caspar Gutman is the only person who knows the history of the falcon or its potential monetary value. He asks Spade if Brigid or Cairo knows what it is and guesses from Spade's reply that neither of them does. Finally he says:

"Well, sir, it's surprising, but it well may be a fact that neither of them does know exactly what that bird is, and that nobody in all this whole wide sweet world knows what it is, saving and excepting only your humble servant, Caspar Gutman, Esquire."

Later, in Chapter 13, titled "The Emperor's Gift," Gutman will feel compelled to tell Spade everything he knows about the history and value of the Maltese falcon--but there is no indication that Spade ever reveals his knowledge to Brigid or anybody else.

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